The middle class is shrinking. Those in power have run up enormous debts on public credit while shoveling most of the money into private pockets. The corporations that have benefitted from this borrowing binge, meanwhile, leverage the global trade system to transfer their profits beyond the reach of national governments.

Meanwhile, we have been told lies by Democrats and by Republicans, divided into artificial camps and led into debates that are either irrelevant or so dramatically scripted that we fail to realize every choice leads to the same result: the dismantling of the social framework that defined and sustained the opportunity of the last century. National mobilization of resources has given way to radical individualism under a narrative that, in the wealthiest nation in the world, we must always expect less.

In this tumultuous time, we search for a way forward - a new Square Deal for the American people.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Thirteen Weeks under Occupation

On August 2, Occupy Wall Street held a General Assembly (GA) in New York City.  As of yesterday's tally, there are more than 140 active Occupy encampments across the United States. 

In addition to the signature encampment in Manhattan and the groups in Oakland and Denver that have drawn significant attention recently for the scope and severity of police crackdowns launched in those cities, there are not only encampments in Portland, Chicago, Los Angeles, and many other large cities but also groups organized in out of the way places like Muncie, Indiana and Helena, Montana. 

Globally, there are more than a dozen other Occupy encampments, and we should take note of where these are located: the U.K., Canada, continental Europe, Hong Kong, Australia.  We find Occupation everywhere that the "victorious" system of Western capitalism has laid down the deepest roots, in the so-called "rich world" whose member nations are the most indebted places on the planet.

They are linked by a common identity -- they are the 99 percent, the self-described representatives of all those who are left increasingly far behind by the winner-take-all economics and politics of twenty-first century capitalism.  Their numbers include the homeless, the unemployed, and the spoiled students who right-wing propagandists like to point to in dismissing their activities but also veterans, current workers (some of whom make six-figure salaries), entrepreneurs, seniors, and other people whose lives would pass muster among the general population as being "successful" under our economic model.

Occupier Politics

The Occupy movement is assuredly not an element of the Democratic Party, but we should be under no illusions that when it comes to voting, the question in the minds of most Occupy members will not be "Democrat or Republican" but rather whether to vote for the Democrat or abstain entirely.  This observation does not speak badly of the Occupiers. 

Over the last several years, the Republican Party has sought to purify its membership on the basis of adherence to ideology (i.e. the culling of the RINOs).  As a result, many people who were once Republicans are now Democrats by default; for instance, progressivism took its shape in large part under Republican President Theodore Roosevelt in contrast to the populism of Democrats under William Jennings Bryan, but "progressive Republican" is today as oxymoron.  What remains is a tug of war between the libertarians (the advocates of liberal democracy) and the true conservatives (the defenders of private privilege and moralism). 

We can accept at face value that the "people before profits" message of the Occupy movement is both too interventionist for libertarians and in every way at odds with conservatives -- though of the two, history has demonstrated time and again that progressives and libertarians can find common ground on many issues (e.g. varying levels of support for End the Fed).

Occupier Demands

Conservatives frequently criticize the Occupy movement for failing to have a clear list of demands.  Some popular talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh simultaneously assert that the Occupy movement is pushing for "The Obama Agenda;" three years into the Obama Presidency, I'm not sure what that is, and I assure you that the Occupiers aren't either.

The Occupiers' demands are nebulous for a variety of reasons:
  1. Independence.  The Occupy movements are affiliated but independent.  Each exists for its own reasons, and its causes (along with its rules) are established by consensus through daily GAs rather than by any form of top-down leadership.  There is a limited coordination capability provided through the (also independent) Occupy Together Web site.  Under such a model, which is not unlike the model that the Continental Congress used to hash out the workings of the nascent American Republic more than 230 years ago, making decisions takes a long time.
  2. Time constraints.  Lest we forget, a great deal of the Occupiers time each day is spent addressing the needs of sustaining their presence.  Even under the best of circumstances, such as those in Los Angeles where neither weather nor police crackdown is a concern, the logistics involved in maintaining a campsite with food and sanitation arrangements are not trivial.  Where protesters must contend with hundreds of riot police launching raids or confiscating their limited resources under the guise of "safety," things get harder.  Mix in colder, wetter weather and things become very hard indeed.
  3. Ignorance.  When I say that ignorance is a barrier to crafting demands, I don't use the term to cause offense.  I have great respect for these people, who are for whatever reason putting what they perceive to be the good of the community ahead of their personal comfort.  Similar motivation is what drives a soldier to volunteer for duty even as his or her friends rush out to gobble up as many luxuries as they can manage.  What I mean is that twenty-first century capitalism is a complicated matter.  Highly educated experts are challenged even to explain how the current system works much less to articulate its problems, and our soundbite nation lacks the attention span as well as the knowledge to truly discuss the matter.  And let's be honest: many of the loudest Tea Party supporters can't even draw a Laffer Curve (a simple parabola) much less explain the concepts of supply-side economics, but they still insist that tax cuts are inherently stimulative.   
The Occupiers are protesting a status quo built and sustained over decades by Neoconservatives and New Democrats alike.  They (we) look around them (us) and see quite clearly that ours is not just a nation but a whole societal model founded in perpetual debt -- recognized even thousands of years ago as a form of slavery -- that commits all future production efforts to merely service the obligations of the past, while an elite chosen more of school and family ties than for any real merit adds to its wealth on a scale that goes far beyond any actual value that those same people at the top actually produce or add to society. 

There is no simple solution because a solution would mean a fundamental shift in the ways that we act, think, and value ourselves, each other, and our world.  Crafting a new way to consider economic and social engagement other than simple profit-maximization is a daunting task.

The Missing Pieces

Even if some of the Occupy encampments disappear, the movement has already accomplished a great deal.  After a summer in which carefully orchestrated, several-hour Tea Party rallies convinced many in Washington that the demands of the American people were largely or solely that spending, services, and taxes be slashed along with repeals of the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") and the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, the rise of sustained protests by those who take a very different view provides a valuable counterweight.

The Occupations need to decide whether their physical presence is the most important part of their activity -- I think that there's a strong case to be made that it is, because the world that they want to work towards is one against the grain of the post-Reagan march back to the Gilded Age and so cannot be sustained merely by telling those already in power to "pay attention" -- and do some real assessments of how that can be accomplished.  We enter the month of November already buried under the first snowfall across much of the Northeast, and the Occupy groups are well aware that if time is on their side, weather is working against them.  Staying warm is a real challenge.  Working on goals will become harder as life becomes harder.

I therefore suggest that the Occupy movement would benefit from adding a few pieces missing from its current approach:
  1. Better coordination.  Independence is a virtue up to a point, but it did not take the Colonials long after Lexington and Concord to recognize that the spiriting actions of a hundred disparate militias were not going to stop the marches of British armies. 

    In the same way, while the Occupy encampments benefit from their distinct democratic processes and should keep them, they need to go to greater lengths to coordinate with one another, not only for strikes and other forms of direct action (which obviously are most effective when coordinated) but also just to share ideas for logistical considerations like food, heat, and sanitation.  Not only is there no benefit to "reinventing the wheel," but certain Occupy encampments (like the one in New York) are necessarily going to get more donations of material and money than other places. 

    Some sort of congress between the encampments would allow them to decide (under the democratic model) where they may want to reinforce certain groups to sustain them, while others might be better off dissipating for the winter and reforming in the spring.
  2. Business affiliation.  The Occupiers do a good job of identifying outrageous practices at specific corporations and also at exposing flaws in the profit-maximizing model of Western capitalism.  But is the Occupy movement actually opposed to business as a concept?  If not, it would benefit greatly from identifying those companies whose business practices most closely align to what its members would term a "model company" -- and in reaching out to such companies to request their logistical support.

    We already know for a fact that some businesses do align with the Occupy movement's ideals.  Many credit unions and nonprofit organizations are candidates, but there are also plenty of businesses, large and small, that go out of their way to provide good benefits, living wages, and opportunities for advancement while staying responsible in the broader communtiy sense and providing shareholders with a return on their investment.  Pointing to these companies and gaining their support would go a long way towards both sustaining the movement and pushing back the claims that the Occupiers want to go down the well-trodden and failed path of Marxism (which they do not).
  3. Academic backing.  As I already mentioned, economic and social structures are complicated, as are the consequences of changes made to existing systems.  We have in our power the ability to utterly discard the U.S. Constitution and draft a new document; indeed, Jefferson expected and hoped that future generations would write their own Constitutions when the need arose.  Thus far, we have seen fit to retain the structure that we were given, but we have nonetheless amended it twenty-seven times!  Change is part of the American experience as well as part of the broader course of human history.

    That said, it's unrealistic that all of the answers will be sketched out by people sitting in parks and wondering how to deal with looming snowdrifts.  The authors of the Constitution knew a great deal about the world and its systems.  They were well read and well studied, and while they did something unique, they did not make it up haphazardly (or with the sort of sham posturing that passes for "debate" in today's Congress). 

    The Occupiers can and should continue to educate themselves through classes and reading, but they should also reach out to those who already know what has been done before and what did or did not work.  A lot of time has already been spent by smart, educated people who see our current system as flawed and who are busy looking for solutions.  The Occupiers can leverage their work to inform their own positions and also to enhance their credibility.  (One source likely to be of particular interest is Degrowth, which has met biannually since 2008 to sketch out ideas for an alternative economic model.)

The Occupations are not going away.  They may move; some may dissolve during the colder months.  But the sentiment that something is terribly wrong in the Western world is not a fleeting thought (and indeed, while the call for action is different, this same sense of disillusionment also underwrites the Tea Party rank-and-file membership).

Whether you agree with the articulated demands of the Occupy movement or not, as an American, you should be grateful that your fellow citizens are exercising their right to protest in public.  Be concerned whenever you hear about one of these protests being broken up by a police crackdown.  Complain about police brutality when you see evidence that it has occurred.  Do not buy into the false claim that protest can be crushed through greater force.  Such an outcome is possible only in a totalitarian state, and even then, history indicates that it is at best a technique for buying time.

America is a democratic republic, and our citizens -- all of them -- are entitled to a forum in which to express their views.  Over the last several decades, we have passed a variety of local ordinances and measures that have made this right very hard to exercise.  Can you imagine if there were even a tenth as many restrictions on having a firearm as there are to having a march? 

Yet protest is essential precisely because it is a safety valve for our system of government.  Bring in riot police and clear a public square with violence to enforce an ordinance against people sleeping in a park, and you have not only augmented the anger that people have towards their government and its police but have also driven them out of the public eye.  Their anger remains, but they can no longer engage with the broader system.  The outcomes of such a model have never been positive for the societies that have tried it.

So, celebrate the existence of Occupy Wall Street and its affiliates.  Celebrate too the Tea Party, whose grassroots anger is no less real.  Hope that the voices of these people, our fellow Americans, coalesce into an honest, useful, and overdue debate towards a government that serves the best interests of its citizens instead of the fake outrage of Washington, D.C.

The Occupation is a sign that America is still a living country.

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